Finland: Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Shortly after the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra relocated to the city’s grand new Helsinki Music Centre [Musiikkitalo] in 2011, the ensemble’s subscriber base sat at just over 4,000 people. ‘That was actually a little too much,’ says general manager Gita Kadambi. ‘We didn’t have any [individual] tickets to sell.’

Since that time the orchestra has gone from strength to strength under Finnish chief conductor John Storgårds – the number of subscribers now stands at a healthy 3,800. In fact, the orchestra’s subscribers have steadily risen by 300 per cent since the 90s. Kadambi says this is largely down to a ‘systematic’ approach that prioritises maintaining good relationships with audiences and supporters.

Storgårds, who took on the role in 2008 and conducts high-profile orchestras around the world, has also played a pivotal role in this dramatic increase. His own reputation and decision to regularly programme star soloists from Finland and abroad have resulted in Helsinki’s loyalty to their philharmonic. Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Sakari Oramo, and Steven Isserlis are among the performers who will make appearances with the orchestra in the coming months and into the 2014-15 season.

But is the orchestra wary of programming concerts that might be too experimental or progressive for their loyal subscribers? Kadambi takes a pragmatic approach to avoid that problem. ‘John Storgårds very much likes to perform and programme contemporary music and I haven’t heard any complaints from subscribers or the wider audience,’ she says. ‘They’re actually quite happy to have new music – if it’s combined with something traditional. If the whole concert programme is very contemporary, they won’t like it. But if there’s a symphony combined with one premiere concerto, it’s fine and they’ll enjoy it.’

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra © Heikki Tuuli
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra © Heikki Tuuli

The Helsinki Philharmonic has staged several world premieres in the past few years. On 20 May the orchestra will perform the world premiere of Finnish pianist and composer Olli Mustonen’s Symphony No 2. The programme also includes Bedřich Smetana’s overture to The Bartered Bride and Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor.

It’s also a long-standing strategy of the orchestra’s to invite audiences and community members to watch rehearsals. Tickets cost just €3, and are free for groups. ‘They’re extremely popular,’ says Kadambi. ‘We have up to 600 people attend each rehearsal. We have various groups, including school children and people with mental or physical disabilities, who attend the rehearsals. They’re also popular with pensioners. It’s almost the same as a concert, but of course it’s very interesting for the audience – if something goes a bit wrong, they can see how the conductor communicates with the orchestra. Before the rehearsal, our audience development producer also sends material to schools and other groups so they can get to know the works beforehand.’

The orchestra’s support in the community also wins funding from the City of Helsinki. ‘In recent years we have had to cut down on certain activities, and look more carefully at our touring plans,’ says Kadambi. ‘But we still have very sturdy support from the city. The capacity of our hall is usually at 90 per cent, which is very high. As long we have these high rates, the city wants to support us – there’s a need and demand.’